Hospital nurses in New York strike over inadequate staffing amid coronavirus

Nurses at the privately-owned Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital in New York went on strike on Tuesday, Dec. 8, demanding more staff and better equipment, as rising COVID-19 cases nationwide threatened to overwhelm hospitals.

Some 200 nurses represented by the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) walked out of their shifts at 7 a.m. for a planned two-day strike. They were asking the hospital for safer working conditions and to increase staffing levels in anticipation of the surge in COVID-19 patients.

Nurses said the hospital has been pushing them to care for too many patients than they could handle at a time. This forces nurses to choose which patient to rescue, said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, the president of the nurses’ union at the hospital. “That is just a horrible thing for health professionals to confront.”

Nurses also said they received personal protective equipment (PPE) that had a strong chemical smell. Some of them developed rashes after using those PPE.

Prior to the strike, Marco Crespo, the hospital’s senior vice president of community affairs, slammed the labor union in a statement in the face of what he deemed were a good deal for the nurses on strike.

Over the past 18 months, the hospital network offered the nurses wage increases and health insurance, among other benefits. However, the network refused to negotiate on staffing levels.

NYSNA is striking because they want the power to dictate staffing assignments,” said Crespo, adding that the union was also misleading the public by suggesting that the hospital is ill-equipped to handle the new surge in COVID-19 cases. “NYSNA is selfishly putting the community at risk.”


“Just-in-time staffing”

Despite Crespo’s claims, most of the nurses didn’t seem to think the benefits were a good deal. On the second day of the strike, New Rochelle nurse Maria Castillo blasted the hospital in a statement released by the union, arguing that the network simply put up billboards and bought commercials calling them “heroes.”

“They want the community to think they appreciate us,” said Castillo. “[They] would rather spend millions of dollars on their public image, instead of making sure we have enough nurses to care for everyone who is sick!”

But it seems as if the strike has only exposed the tip of the iceberg. Prior to the pandemic, nurses in New York City cared for an average of 6.5 patients, according to a recent study by Linda Aiken, who heads the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania.

In addition, the state of New York does not cap the number of patients that can be assigned to one nurse. This shows how bad hospitals have been trying to manage their staffing even before the pandemic, said Aiken.

“[Hospitals are] very much in love with this idea of just-in-time staffing and just-in-time supplies.”

More healthcare workers nationwide moving to strike

With the number of COVID-19 cases steadily climbing across the U.S., many healthcare workers have gone on strike in other states.

In Washington, for instance, over 100 nurses, doctors and physician assistants moved to strike on the week of Nov. 25. They worked at 20 urgent-care clinics, all of which were owned by the company MultiCare. They said that the company refused to provide N-95 masks and plexiglass barriers to unionized clinics. (Related: Health care workers are rejecting “KN95” knockoff masks made in China.)

Workers claimed they were also forced to work grueling 12-hour shifts with no breaks. Brian Fox, a physician and a member of the union bargaining team, said that their main concern is the providers’ wellbeing.

According to Fox, multiple studies have shown that healthcare providers begin to make mistakes after several hours of looking after so many patients.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, about 700 nursing home workers went on a strike as well, demanding hazard pay and better working conditions.

Overall, these demonstrations show that more and more healthcare workers, particularly those affiliated with labor unions, are now more willing to go on strike as the U.S. faces a new wave of COVID-19 this winter.

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